Reading for Boys and Girls
A FEW generations ago, a distinctive literature for boys and girls was unknown. The Puritan boy was confined within narrow borders upon which Pilgrim’s Progress and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs stood as sentinels, although at times Robinson Crusoe might be permitted to join them. Possibly a few books of travel and the adventures of religious heroes were occasionally added, but the limitations were marked. The tastes of the boy of those days were, however, the same as in our own, and it is probable that could his elders have looked within his mind they would not have been entirely satisfied with that which they saw. The passages in the life and journey of the Pilgrim, which the lad most willingly read, were not always those which would have been selected by his stern parents ; for the meetings and struggles with the adversary were not those which he least enjoyed. It is even to be doubted whether the lessons implanted by the saintly Foxe were those he designed to impart, for the contests rather than the principles were foremost in the minds of the boy readers.
At that time the “ masterpiece only ” theory by virtue of necessity was in control of the field. It was the Spartan theory of training applied to literary matters, and perhaps those who thrived did so as much in spite of as because of it. It may have been an illustration of the survival of the fittest, but nevertheless stands out in marked contrast with the conceptions and desires of the present generation, who would not only have the fittest survive, but would also make many fit to survive. The present aim is the production of intelligent, appreciative readers as well as of a few gifted writers. For it is the writer rather than the reader who has been prone to attribute his success to the thorough mastery of a few standard authors in those days of dearth and poverty. It is forgotten that others shared the same privations, and somehow have failed to become either masters of a lucid, Saxon English, or students of the purest literature. Something in addition to the familiarity with Bunyan or Defoe seems to be necessary to produce that desired result.
A little later there came a time when the ban against Scott and Shakespeare was removed, and while still there were almost no books written primarily for boys and girls, the younger readers turned eagerly to these great writers. And the numbers of those in our own day who, while still young, are familiar with these and other great authors have steadily increased.
The desirability of this condition is too apparent to require emphasizing here. In homes of culture to-day the familiarity of children with the strong, pure writers of healthful prose and poetry is one of the most hopeful, as well as most apparent, signs of the present times. No books written especially for boys and girls can ever supplant them, nor ought they to. The great dramas of Shakespeare may not be read critically, but at least a familiarity with the plots and facts is obtained at the time when the memory is most tenacious. The boy can apprehend what he does not fully comprehend. It is not necessary to be a botanist in order to appreciate the beauties of the rose or the fragrance of the violet. The philosophy of history may not be grasped in the perusal of Scott’s tales, but heroic men and pure women are held up before his gaze, and there is also the indirect effect of contact with a literary style as simple as it is vigorous.
With all their excellences the masters do not, however, provide a complete diet for the child mind. Something besides bone and tendon is necessary. In most of the higher works of fiction, whatever their character, the “ master passion ” is ever present, and to the younger reader ignorance of this not only is bliss, but ought to be. Even the purest of books may be suggestive to him when he has a right to be free from its presence. Some of the subjects which interest his elders interest him also, and, as has been said, no book can be called of value for a child which is without interest to his elders. But he has a right to ask that it shall be presented to him in a form which answers to his own demands, and these, as the writer has endeavored to show, are that action shall be more pronounced than contemplation or analysis, and that his fancy, his moral and receptive faculties are entitled to a just consideration. He requires that the same subjects which interest his elders, for him shall receive a different treatment, a different emphasis. His own sense of perspective must be considered, or the presentation becomes as flat as a Chinese picture. So, with the desirability of creating a taste for the higher literature in the younger readers, the fact cannot be ignored or denied that they are also entitled to books which shall appeal to their own mental qualities, and shall be presented in a form to which they can readily respond. The design of even the best of these is to supplement, not supplant, the works of the masters. It was, perhaps, the unconscious recognition of this truth which led to the production of books especially designed for the younger readers.
When they first appeared, and up to the time of about 1870, the so-called “ Sunday-school books ” flourished amazingly. These books are not yet dead, but they are dying. They presented parodies of boy-and-girl life, and abounded in monstrosities which not even the “moral” on the last page could entirely conceal. The hero was an angelic creature, not destined long for this present evil world, and accordingly soon departed, scattering benedictions lavishly about him as he winged his way to the regions in which he was supposed to feel more at home. His emblem seemed to be that of the “ cherub,” still seen upon some of the tombstones in the country graveyards, and consisted only of a head with wings. Doubtless this symbol was selected because the cherubic hero was also lacking in bowels and flesh and blood. This parody upon sacred things has largely passed away, but many of the young readers turned from him to other classes of books which began to appear about that time, not even the promise of an early demise and a cherub carved upon their tombstones beneath the weeping willows being sufficient to hold them back.
The plot in these other works of “ juvenile fiction ” usually took one of three courses. The boy was left, as the eldest of a numerous progeny, the sole support of his widowed mother; and straightway upon the decease of his father, he resolves to make molasses candy, which he sells at a large profit to the waiting multitudes, and soon acquires fortune by his enterprise, and fame from having found a Homer as the proclaimer of his deeds. When the saccharine supply was exhausted, the author varied the plot by making the youthful hero become the defender of the feeble scion of some wealthy family against the assaults of “ Ragged Dick, the Terror of the Bowery; ” or else, he has him stand waiting upon the street corner for the runaway horse which is certain to come dashing down the street dragging the beautiful daughter of a millionaire behind him. He bravely stops the frantic steed, and coolly receives the thanks of the grateful father, who at once urges — nay beseeches — him to enter his office, share his millions, and prepare forthwith to marry the beautiful girl whom he has rescued from an untimely death. Occasionally the plot was still further varied by permitting the hero to shoot a few Indians, or discover the place in which some band of robbers had concealed their ill-gotten gains; but these were abnormal types, and departed from the orthodox standards of fame and fortune acquired through saccharine means, or by the protection of the weak, or the rescue of the helpless. The fact that fortunes are seldom acquired by the sale of molasses candy, that the biceps of Ragged Dick is prone to be unnaturally developed, or that fond fathers do not usually stand upon the corners of the streets and urge unknown orphans to enter their offices and families, apparently made little difference. These books were read widely, and it is to be feared are not without readers to-day. Their appeals were ofttimes stronger than those of books of greater excellence, or even of the platitudes of the Sunday-school tale, or of the promise of an early cherubic state.
Why was it ? There is a philosophy in it all if we can only perceive it. These books responded to a certain demand of the youthful mind which can never be safely ignored. They provided action without contemplation or analysis. The improbable was no barrier, for young life walks by faith. The sympathies of the young readers were touched by heroism, although it may have been a parody upon life. The imagination was appealed to by a hero who in some ways was a supplement of the reader’s own character.
In the study of the problem of books for younger readers the qualities of mind and heart in which the boy and girl differ from the adult, and yet in which to a certain extent they also share, must be considered, for it is safe to assume that a normal, healthy childhood is the very best preparation for a normal, healthy manhood, and that the growing boy and girl are entitled to a literature which shall not eliminate all their experiences, or ignore their natural impulses and desires.
The first of all demands of the younger reader is for a story. In this particular he does not differ materially from his elders. The greatest of all teachers clothed his profoundest truths in the garb of the parable, and the stories of the Prodigal returning to his father’s house and of the shepherd wandering over the mountain side in his search for the lost sheep appeal even to thoughtful men when they become weary of the more obscure doctrines of the Teacher’s pupils. The world’s greatest poems are its epics, and the loyal Æneas and the wandering Ulysses will not soon cease to be cherished. The demand for a story, expressed almost as soon as the dawning intelligence finds utterance, does not depart until life itself is gone.
Another demand of the young reader is for action rather than for contemplation. He is aware of the feeling of hunger, but the process of digestion is something of which he is not conscious, and in which he has no interest. Analysis and introspection are words outside his vocabulary. His instinctive feeling is one of indifference, if not of revolt, against bringing to the light that which Nature herself would keep concealed. There is a prison at Sing-Sing, but it is as unnecessary, as it is unwise, for all to know the history of every crime of its inmates, or the process of degeneration in the souls of the prisoners. The study of disease, crime, sin, in which so many writers for adults apparently delight, lies all outside the realm of normal, healthful, young life. Its demand is for action, not analysis ; for heroics, not contemplation ; and even mock heroism is not lost upon it.
One of the most profound of the English students of the child mind has recently said, “ All those who have made a loving study of the young human animal will, I think, admit that its dominant expression is gravity, and not playfulness.” And most careful observers will agree with him. The games and plays are more than play ; they call for the exercise of all the skill and power the boy possesses. Into them he enters with might, mind, and strength. They appeal to him because they demand action. He responds because it is his nature to act. And when he sits down to his book the same impulse is still dominant. The questions in his mind which must be answered begin with “ What ” not “ Why ; ” “ How ” not “ Wherefore.” The first question, then, of a boy concerning a story is, “ Is it true ? ” If not true, most boys care but little for it, that is, unless there is a basis of truth upon which the narrative rests. The imagination is not the faculty to which the appeal is most easy.
In the case of young children the condition is slightly different, but still the predominant faculty is fancy rather than pure imagination. Boys and girls of the age referred to in this article usually repudiate fairy tales, but with their younger brothers and sisters they may be instruments of great power, and the writer ventures the assertion that the great danger is not that the imagination will be unduly developed, but rather left dwarfed and withered. The commercial spirit and the cry that everything shall be practical, sentiments abroad in our land to-day, demand an antidote. And where shall it be found if not in the books we place in the hands of our boys and girls, books which rest upon a basis of truth, or at least are not untrue to life, which bring before their vision the sight of the possible and the ideal, and appeal to them, in a language they well know, to attempt better and greater things ?
That the man I am may cease to be.”
In the moral faculties there is a radical difference, as well as resemblance, between the young readers and their elders. Boys lack mercy, but abound in a sense of strict justice. In all this world there is no place in which one will pass exactly for what he is worth as in a school or college. There wealth, position, name are reduced to their lowest terms, and the judgment of boys upon their mates, and not infrequently upon their teachers, is the nearest approach to exact justice to be found in this world. A normal boy can be trusted to hate a liar and a coward. He may be merciless, is frequently cruel, and ofttimes hard, but nevertheless he is governed by a sense of rude justice, and is honest and brave. He admires strength and courage, and utterly repudiates all the finespun distinctions of the casuist. His faith, strictly speaking, is not faith, but credulity. I know that Eugene Field voiced the cry of many a troubled soul when he sang, —
But was it “ faith ” ? The boy believed implicitly all the stories of the mother and grandmother concerning the Old Testament heroes, and had never a question as to whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or whether there were two Isaiahs or not. But when he first went forth from home to enter the school, he also believed all the stories of the older boys until he brought upon himself woes as innumerable as the well - greaved Greeks suffered under Achilles’ wrath. He believed, but he believed anything, everything, until the reaction came, and in his haste he regarded all men as liars before they were proved true. Even then he did not lose his sentiment of reverence. The reverence for a boy, of which Juvenal wrote, is not so great as the instinctive reverence of a healthy boy for higher, better things. He also has the power of conviction. He hates with an intensity his elders might well envy, for a good hater is seldom found, and what he admires and loves, he cherishes with his whole heart, although he is seldom demonstrative, except, perhaps, to his mother and sisters.
The moral faculties of the girl do not differ fundamentally from those of the boy, although a divergence may be found in a few manifestations. Her conscience may be more tender, but it is not so tenacious. The writer was at one time the principal of a large high school, in which both boys and girls were pupils. Occasionally he assembled the girls by themselves, and brought to their attention lapses in discipline which had been reported by the various teachers. He would endeavor to explain the loss which came to all through the departure from the rules of the school, and after emphasizing the common interests of pupils and teachers, would ask for a promise that the trouble should not occur again. The promise would be readily given, but, alas, in the majority of cases be almost as readily forgotten. A similar promise from the boys was more difficult to obtain. “They did n’t want to make a promise for fear they could n’t keep it; ” but if the promise was once given it was held to with a greater tenacity. The sympathies of the girl are more quickly aroused, and the sight of physical suffering stirs her pity ; still, the taint of the ancestral cruelty is not entirely wanting, although the wounds she inflicts are more like those caused by the needle than by the club her brother might use. To both, right and wrong are absolute, not relative, terms, and a youthful misanthrope is as much of an anomaly as a youthful grandfather.
In the matter of sentiment both classes of young readers share, the difference between them consisting more in the manifestation than the fact. “ The sentimental age ” through which young people, especially girls, are supposed necessarily to pass, as much as they are expected to have the measles, is commonly spoken of in a light and flippant manner. But the sentiments of patriotism, of maternity or grand-maternity, are certainly not wanting in beauty and power, and what is needed in the case of the younger readers is not the ignoring of the propensity, but its proper and well-balanced development. Courage, tenderness, sympathy, compassion, regard for the rights of others, patriotism, reverence, are qualities not lacking in the hearts of boys and girls, and in the unreal world of books, peopled with living characters to the young readers, the end to be sought is not to ignore or to belittle these elements, but the best training of them into usefulness and power.
In general, too, it may be said that the receptive, rather than the perceptive, faculties are stronger in the youthful mind. Memory, unlike all other good things, seems to be at its best soon after it is born, although for some reason, which no one but the theologian is able to explain, the evil is retained somewhat more easily than the good. Fancy is at work preparing the way for the imagination, the emotional life is stronger than the will, and the moral faculties are vivid, though undisciplined and misleading. The youthful mind is not analytic, is receptive rather than perceptive, and seeks the reasonable more than the process of reasoning.
In the attempts, conscious and unconscious, which have been made to meet these demands, much yet remains to be done, for literature for the young may be said to be still in its preliminary stages. Its beginning dates back scarcely more than two generations. Before it is considered in detail, it may be well to note one change which has already become apparent, and that is the disappearance of the distinction between books for boys and those for girls. A few years ago this difference was marked, and books for girls were almost as numerous as those for boys. To-day the latter far outnumber the former, and there is every prospect that the distinction will almost, if not completely, disappear. And the explanation is not difficult to find.
To-day, while few boys can be found who will read books written especially for girls, the converse is markedly true, and the sisters read their brothers’ books almost with the avidity of the boys themselves. And the cause is plain. The days when girls remained indoors and worked samplers and guarded their complexions have ceased to be. Over the golf links and on the tennis courts the boys and girls contend together. At every college game girls are present, and follow the contestants with an interest and understanding as keen as that of their brothers. In schools and colleges for girls, crews and basket-ball teams are common to-day, while in the use of the bicycle the girls certainly are not far behind their companions and friends of the other sex. All this has had a marked effect upon the character of the books they read, as well as upon the lives they live, and as a natural consequence the literature which appeals to the one class is not without interest to the other.
As an illustration of this fact, one of our most prominent librarians recently issued a list of the sixty-eight “ favorite books 舡 of a young maiden of twelve. In this list of sixty-eight titles, twentyseven were of books written especially for boys, only eight were of books for girls, and all of the others were of works equally well adapted to either class. It is altogether probable that this girl instead of being an exception is fairly representative.
A recent conference with several prominent librarians concerning the books most in demand by boys and girls reveals the fact that two classes appeal most strongly to them. Foremost in demand is the historical story, and this seems to combine most of the elements required by the American boy. Its basis is truth, and yet it appeals to his love of action, it stimulates his imagination ; in it his own unexpressed longings and desires find utterance, and it instructs without the appearance of talking down. It provides legitimate excitement, recounts adventures, and clothes the dry bones with flesh and blood. And the book appeals almost as strongly to his sister as it does to him. Even the street boys are reading these books, and one librarian informed me that he had discovered that George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte were the most popular of the heroes of the bootblacks and newsboys in his own city.
A close second was the story of school life. The story of American school life has not yet been written, however, chiefly because the distinctively American school has not come into existence. Shall it be the high school, the boarding school, the academy, or the fitting school ? Until that question is answered, the Yankee cousin of Tom Brown must wait to make his bow to an American audience. Numbers of good stories of school life have been issued, but the great story is yet to appear.
In this article, the writer has dwelt upon what boys and girls read, rather than upon what may be read to them. Frequently, it is by this latter method that the best introduction to the higher literature is given. When to the beauty and uplifting power of the book is added the charm of the familiar voice, then boys and girls will listen to that which they might not read for themselves. For sometimes the pathways of literature require a guide to point the way as much as do the slopes of the mountain side we may be ascending.
Everett T. Tomlinson.